Yesterday’s build-up to the US Open was full of the cliched lines we have heard on repeat for the past decade. ‘There could be fireworks’ and ‘let battle commence’ were common phrases in the build-up to Serena Williams’ opening round tie against Maria Sharapova at the Arthur Ashe Stadium but in truth, once again, it was a walk in the park for the greatest female tennis player of all time.
Williams made it nineteen successive victories over Sharapova and has not lost to the Russian since 2004. Fifteen years of total dominance and yet some pundits are still trying to stoke this match-up as a rivalry for the ages. Perhaps, unfortunately, tennis has moved on, their once heated rivalry has fizzled out and both women have matured and been through a lot in the last few years.
After an intense Australian Open quarter-final in 2016, Sharapova failed a drugs test and was banned for fifteen months. Serena meanwhile, having lost in the final that year, went away, returned pregnant twelve months later and won the entire competition without dropping a set. One of the most incredible sporting achievements in this century.
Three years after that meeting down under, the spark and the tension has almost fizzled out. Williams’ 6-1, 6-1 win took under an hour and was so one-sided it was barely a contest. The great rivalries in sport are evenly contested battles that either side can win on any given day. In men’s tennis, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have thrilled spectators for the past 15 years, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta endured six epic fights during the length of their careers and Arsenal and Manchester United had the defining rivalry of the Premier League in the early noughties.
In fact, there are similarities between the rivalry Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger enjoyed and the one we see between Williams and Sharapova. Wenger came into the Premier League as a man with fresh ideas and enjoyed instant success, winning the Premier League in his very first season.
The pair of clubs then dominated the league over the next six seasons, sharing three titles apiece and with Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira at the heart of this rivalry, there was no hiding what this meant to both clubs at the time. However, after Arsenal’s invincible title-winning season in 2003/04, the departure of Vieira and Keane from their respective clubs and the move away from Highbury for the Gunners, the rivalry diminished.
Manchester United instead battled with Chelsea and then Manchester City for league titles as Arsenal finished fourth pretty much every season. That is the thing, once a rivalry no longer becomes competitive, it decreases in importance. When Sharapova burst onto the scene in 2004 to defeat Williams in the Wimbledon final, it was followed up by a war of words when the rivalry was at its peak.
Sharapova stoked the rivalry by writing in her autobiography: “I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon. I think she hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She's never forgiven me for it."
Williams has fired over several shots of her own, even commenting on Sharapova’s relationship with her ex Grigor Dimitrov: ”She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' – it's so boring. She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it."
Sharapova followed up her win at Wimbledon with another success that year over her nemesis, but since then it has been one-way traffic for the American. By 2013, Williams had racked up ten consecutive wins and if the pair meet again anytime soon that number could double. This isn’t a rivalry anymore, this is simply a constant barrage of wins from the greatest female tennis player we have ever seen.